Thursday, September 14, 2006

Greek-style Okras

Fish soup and grilled fish, rabbit in a wine sauce, wild goat, grilled octopus, tiny deep-fried fish, lots of eggplants and zucchinis, tomato salads with feta and herbs, more tomatoes in dakos salads, white wine and raki, fragrant bread coated with sesame seeds, sweet preserved fruits, prunes and figs fresh from the tree... Here are a few of the amazing foods and wines I savored during my trip to Crete last July.

Now I'm back to endless days of stressful work, too short weekends and the wait for another escape to the other side of the world. In the meantime, dreaming of delicious foods and cooking dishes from paradise vacation spots is an easy cure to the traveller's nostalgia. I needed a fix last week and prepared okras - the greek way.
  • Choose small, firm okras (1/2 pound)
  • 2 ripe heirloom tomatoes
  • 1/2 yellow onion
  • 3 tbsp greek olive oil
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup water
  1. Rince the okras. Cut the hard, round extremity of each of them but try not to expose the seeds.
  2. Combine the vinegar and salt in a small plate or cup. Dip the cut end of each okra in this mixture and place in a deep pan.
  3. Cube the tomatoes and chop the onion. Place in the pan over the okras.
  4. Pour the tomato juice and the water in the pan.
  5. Bring to a simmer and relax for about 20-25 minutes, while the okras are cooking. Do not toss during the cooking phase: it would break the okras and they would become sticky. Just let the magic happen without doing anything.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Five things to eat before you die

When Susan in Italy from Porcini Chronicles tagged me for this meme originated by Melissa (The Traveler's Lunchbox) I was thrilled: this is such an interesting subject, there will be so much to learn from other bloggers! But after sitting for a (long) while in front of my computer, trying to give my own contribution to the project, I started getting the "writer's block". How on earth was I going to narrow down to 5 an ever growing list of dishes I would have died of not trying? My whole life is devoted to culinary experiments (like many food bloggers for sure). I rarely cook the same recipe twice and what waters my mouth the most when reading a restaurant's menu is dishes I can't pronounce or made of ingredients I have never heard of. This isn't really something I am forcing on myself (say I'd rather have something I know but try to get out of my comfort zone): I actually enjoy a dish more if it surprises me. Discovery is endless... and so is the list of dishes I wish everyone can try at least once in their life.

On the other hand, of course, I often dream of renewing my best food experiences and do so if I can. So I guess I do have favorites. For this meme, let's stay in the French realm (since this is the subject of this blog), although there would be many more cuisines to talk about. I'll try to tell you about five dishes I dream of all year round until I go back to my home country (you have to be there to get the real deal, especially when it comes to childhood memories). Here is goes:

1. Choucroute alsacienne. Alsace-style sauerkraut ("sauerkraut" became "choucroute" after centuries of interactions between french and german languages at the border) is a dish made of fermented cabbage garnished with various deli meats: saussages, pork... and more pork coming in all shapes and forms. The fermented shredded cabbage is slowly cooked in Alsace white wine (usually Riesling) and flavored with Juniper berries. Choucroute has become a traditional brasserie dish all over France, which allowed me to eat a lot of them in Lyon where I grew up. Most boucheries-charcuteries (butcher-deli shops) also sell the necessary ingredients (meats and cabbage) to prepare your own. The sourness of the cabbage, the tart taste of Juniper berries, the juicy meats spiced up with Dijon mustard are amazing.

2. Steak tartare is on the long list of french dishes that are not "politically correct" and that some people don't dare to try (along with snails, frogs, very smelly and colorful cheeses, etc, etc). But it is soooooooo good that it would be a real mistake to not try it at least once (and then you'll want more). Technically speaking, steak tartare is raw ground beef, mixed with a raw egg yolk and just seasonned... The whole "uncooked meat" story is clearly against the "safe handling" warning displayed in huge red letters on each package of meat we buy here in the US. But let's forget about this somehow marginal issue and focus on the taste. If you like tuna sashimi you already have an idea of what raw beef tastes like. Steak tartare seasonning usually consists of Dijon mustard, chopped cornichons (delicious small crunchy gerkins that would deserve to be in this 5-item list by themselves), chopped onion, chopped capers, chopped flat-leaf parsley, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. This is yet another typical brasserie dish. In some restaurants they prepare it in front of you, bringing the meat topped with the egg yolk with spices on the side, and mixing everything at your table. It is served with thin and deliciously crunchy pommes frites.

3. "Bouchon" cuisine. "Les bouchons de Lyon" are famous for two reasons: heavy traffic jams ("bouchon" means cork) and traditional restaurants. Les Bouchons emerged in the 18th century at the apogee of Lyon's silk weaving industry. They were generally held by women and offered various hearty foods for the silk workers ("les canuts"). Famous dishes include onion soup, "salade lyonnaise" (frisée with grilled bacon, poached egg, croutons and a shallot vinaigrette dressing) or "rosette" (dry saussage) for a start; veal kidneys ("rognons") or "andouillette" (veal tripe saussage) served with a creamy whole grain mustard sauce, "quenelles" (pike fish dumplings) or "cardons" (cardoons) au gratin as a main dish; "cervelle de canut" ("weaver brain", a weird name for "fromage blanc" fresh cheese seasonned with salt, pepper, garlic and chives), Saint-Marcellin cheese, "tarte à la praline" (bright pink sugar-coated almond tart)... Eating in a Bouchon downtown or on Croix-Rousse hillside (usually sharing a table with other patrons) is really something to try.

4. Oysters from Marenne-Oléron. Oysters are mostly eaten raw in France, with minimal seasonning (a dash of lemon juice or a few drops of red wine vinegar and finely chopped shallots) so as to not mask the subtle flavors of this delightful "fruit de mer". They are served with a slice of rye bread coated with salted butter, and a glass of dry white wine. Marenne-Oléron is a famous oyster farming region on the french Atlantic coast. The oysters they grow there are small and delicate. Their taste is divine. Definitely something you want to try (and if you can go there: even better!)

5. Cantaloupe from Provence. There had to be something sweet in this list... And I have eaten so many bland cantaloupes over here that it makes me sourly regret those grown in South of France. They are usually smaller that their American counterparts but much softer and sweeter: the juices are more concentrated. If you go to a farmers market they'll pick the right one for you depending on when you plan to eat it, so that it will be at its peak when you dive in it with a teaspoon. Eat it plain or pour a teaspoon of port wine in each half. It makes a lovely appetizer.

Now I wonder what the following fellow food bloggers will come up with: